I Never Forget a Face: The Science of Super-Recognizers’ Amazing Recognition Skills

Summary: Super recognizers focus less on the eye area and distribute their gaze more evenly than typical viewers, extracting more information from other facial features.

source: APS

Super recognizers never forget a face. They can catch a glimpse of their childhood friend in the rearview mirror and instantly know it’s them. They help police departments and security agencies identify suspects. They are also good private detectives and unofficial investigators.

But as fascinating as their superpower is, it remains poorly understood. Until now, scientists believed that super-recognizers were so good with faces because they processed them holistically by taking a snapshot of the face and storing it.

In an article published Aug. 31 in the journal Psychological sciencepsychologists from UNSW Sydney and the University of Wollongong (UOW) challenged this view, proving that super-recognizers, who make up about 2 per cent of society, look at faces just like the rest of us, but do it faster and more accurately.

how does this happen

UNSW researcher and lead study author Dr James Dunn explains that when super-recognizers catch a glimpse of a new face, they break it up into parts and then store them in the brain as composite images.

“They can still recognize faces better than others, even when they can only see smaller regions at a time. This suggests that they can piece together an overall impression from smaller pieces, rather than a holistic impression taken at a single glance,” Dunn said.

For the purpose of the study, co-author Dr Sebastien Miellet, a UOW researcher in the School of Psychology and an expert in active vision, used eye-tracking technology to analyze how the super-recognizers scan and process faces and their parts.

Until now, scientists believed that super-recognizers were so good with faces because they processed them holistically by taking a snapshot of the face and storing it. Image is in the public domain

“We can see with great precision not only where people are looking, but which parts of the visual information they are using,” Mielet said.

When studying the visual processing patterns of super-recognizers, Dunn and Mielet realized that, unlike typical recognizers, super-recognizers focused less on the eye region and distributed their gaze more evenly than typical viewers, extracting information from other features of the face, especially when studying faces.

“So the advantage of super-recognizers is their ability to capture highly distinctive visual information and assemble all the parts of the face like a puzzle, quickly and accurately,” Mielet said.

UNSW and UOW researchers will continue to study the super-recognizer population.

Miellet believes one hypothesis is that the superpower of super-recognizers may stem from a specific curiosity and behavioral interest in other people. Potentially, super-recognizers may also be more empathetic than most of us.

“In the next stages of our research, we will equip some super-recognizing and typical viewers with a portable eye-tracking device and put them out on the street to observe, not in the lab, but in real life, how they interact with the world,” Mielet said.

About this visual memory research news

Author: Leah Thayer
source: APS
Contact: Leah Thayer – APS
Image: Image is in the public domain

See also

This shows yellow balls with different facial expressions painted on them

Original Research: Closed access.
“Sampling face information in super-recognizers” by Sebastien Miellet et al. Psychological science


Sampling face information in super recognizers

The perceptual processes underlying individual differences in face recognition ability remain poorly understood.

We compared the visual sample of 37 adult superface recognizers—individuals with superior face recognition ability—to that of 68 typical adult viewers by measuring gaze position as they learned and recognized unfamiliar faces. In both phases, participants viewed faces through “spotlight” apertures that varied in size, with information about the face constrained in real time around their fixation point.

We found higher accuracy for the super-recognizers at all aperture sizes—showing that their superiority does not rely on global sampling of face information, but is also evident when forced to perceive piecewise sampling. Additionally, super-recognizers made more fixations, focused less on the eye region, and distributed their gaze more than typical viewers.

These differences were most evident when studying faces and were consistent with the trends we observed across the broader range of abilities, suggesting that they reflect factors that vary to different extents in the broader population.

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